Jump to content

THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS Episode 22 The Return of the River Rat


Recommended Posts

Thank you for joining former AWSA Executive Director Bruce Kistler as he recounted stories from over sixty years on water skis. This last episode brings us to the present. Who knows what the future may hold? Perhaps there’ll be more to tell.

Episode 22 The Return of the River Rat


When I moved to Florida, I didn’t have a boat. For that matter, my family never had a boat. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I skied mostly with Big Al McGrath. In Florida, I skied with the Bob Segal family for a while and after that I bummed rides with people and paid Jim McCormick for a set now and then. I didn’t ski nearly as much as I wanted to until Bill Clifford allowed me to use “his” boat, an old Crosby with a 100 horse Mercury. The Crosby, a runabout and not the tournament model, was actually owned by the Pope family. I made a tripod ski hitch out of heavy electrical conduit and mounted a trick release on it. It served me and my wife for a few years before the Popes wanted it back. They cut down the hull and made a bone fishing rig out of it.

Ironically, I bought my first boat after I left AWSA and was done, fed up, disgusted with the organization. So, what type of boat does a life-long tournament skier buy? A Bayliner I/O of course. The Bayliner was a great family boat and actually didn’t have a bad trick wake. I continued to slalom and trick recreationally but, without a release, I stopped doing reverse toe turns. When we built our dream house on a nice lake and eventually sold the aging Bayliner, we went looking for a used tournament ski boat.

I soon discovered that the only tournament rigs in my price range were junk. I was starting to get discouraged when a salesman at an Orlando dealership took me aside and whispered that he knew of a customer in north Florida that had just put a nice Nautique 196 up for private sale. I called the guy. He gave me a price. I gulped and told him it was too rich for my blood. I simply wasn’t used to the premium prices that tournament boats commanded. However, after doing more research, I realized that the price he was offering was actually a good deal. If nothing else, the boat was a good investment.

I called the guy back and said that I was interested, but I wanted to ski behind it. The water level of his lake was too low to launch and he was reluctant to put the boat in the St. Johns River. When I insisted, he relented. The 196 was an absolute show piece and the owner was obsessive about it. A stiff wind was blowing and he nearly freaked out when nasty river water kept splashing on his baby. It turned out to be all good. I got a few minutes of rough tricking behind the Nautique, went back to his place and handed him the cashier’s check that I’d drawn up the day before, pretty certain that I would be buying the boat in any case. I returned to Winter Haven with a creampuff rig. Years later, it’s still in my boathouse.

My wife urged me to get back into trick competition. You can still do this, she said. I was still miffed at AWSA, but what’s an old River Rat to do when he finally lives on a lake and owns a Ski Nautique? Another thing that got me excited was a pro tournament that we attended at Disney World. It had been decades since I had watched a tricks competition. I was floored. How can anyone land a flip, stick the landing, go straight up, do another, then another, and another? An additional factor that made me want to come back was the “new” age divisions that didn’t exist when I had last competed. I would be In Men 6, skiing against men my own age. I had nothing to lose. With Susan as my driver, pin person, GoPro operator, manager, nutritionist, medical advisor and cheerleader, I swallowed my gall and returned to competition after a 27-year hiatus. Now we’d see how well I stacked up against the old farts that were still at it.

I discovered that everything had changed, the rules, the skis, the boats, the competition—and my body. I had not performed any reverse toe turns in years and knew that it would take a while before I could start doing them consistently once again. So, for the 2013 season I decided to replace some of those points with two ski tricks. I cobbled together a mispatched pair of skis by dusting off my old Cypress Gardens Technique to go with the KD 7000 I was using. I entered a few local tournaments but got hurt just before the Regionals and had to request a medical exemption. So, when I showed up at the Nationals in West Palm Beach, it was a complete surprise to everyone. I’m sure they wondered who this guy was who had appeared out of nowhere. I stood up on most of my tricks and waited for the results. After a while, a guy showed my wife the scores which had been posted online. (Online results were something new to us.) I had placed second. It was my first Nationals medal.

The next season, I upgraded my kit with a new Radar Graviton, Masterline trick rope and handle and quick release. I started doing reverse toe turns again and went back to a single ski. The hard work paid off and I won the Men 6 title at the 2014 Nationals in San Marcos, Texas. With Don Parsons and Eric Lee graciously opting to ski Master Men, I was on a roll and repeated in 2015 in West Palm and 2016 in Caldwell, Idaho. The River Rat was back, better than ever.

Moving into Men 7 at the 2017 Nationals in San Marcos, I fell on the opening trick of my second pass and was out of the running. I redeemed myself by winning the 2018 Nationals in Maize, Kansas but fell again at the 2019 Nationals in West Palm Beach. I didn’t ski the 2020 “COVID” Nationals in Zachary, Louisiana. At the 2021 Nationals in Wilmington, Illinois, I fell early on my first pass yet still ended up on the podium in 5th place.

I chased Jerry Hosner’s Men 7 national record (the oldest men’s record on the books) before Don Parsons moved into the division. I ran the record at a Class C tournament. I ran it again at a Record Capability tournament in Polk City, Florida but the Technical Committee took away my toehold sideslide. I examined the official video and isolated one frame that clearly showed the ski at 90 degrees; I could prove that the trick was credit. I appealed to the Technical Committee but they would not relent. They were required to view the video full speed and were still convinced that the ski was not sideways. Argh! When Don Parsons came into the division, he set a new record but left it still within my reach. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the job done.

Throughout my revived career, I suffered repeated injuries. I pulled hamstrings, back muscles and shoulder muscles. Bless my physical therapist. At one point, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the fibula. I hobbled around in a boot for weeks before a second X ray confirmed that it was a missed diagnosis. I got back on skis just in time for the Nationals.

Aging like a dusty bottle of wine, I moved into Men 8 in the fall of 2021 and set my first national record at Polk City, Florida. I struggled during the summer of 2022 and failed to set the Florida state and Southern Regional records that were well within my reach. I had planned to ski in the World Senior Championships in Bordeaux, France but decided to skip it due to the continued threat of COVID. (Ironically, I got COVID while vacationing in Pennsylvania that same month.) Still, it was a good year. I won the Nationals in Maize, Kansas and maintained my US number one ranking for Men 8 and world number one ranking for men 65 and over.

I keep threatening to retire from competition, but with the Nationals in West Palm Beach in 2023, I guess the River Rat will keep at it for a while longer. Tricks are for kids.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...